Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is writing to footballers to praise them for taking a stand over online racist abuse and reassure them he is prepared to take tough action on tech companies, as patience runs out over online abuse.
Ministers are confident a new law will be tough enough to bring to book even the biggest social media companies, like Facebook, although it will be some months before the rules are approved by Parliament.
The Online Harms Bill will bring in ‘massive fines’ big enough to ‘make [Facebook chief executive] Mark Zuckerberg sit up and take notice’, a Whitehall source told Sportsmail, as frustration grows over big tech firms’ reluctance to take action unilaterally
Marcus Rashford (L) and Anthony Martial (R) are among those who have received racial abuse
In the meantime, Dowden is set to write to high profile players past and present, including Jordan Henderson, Tyrone Mings and Troy Deeney whom he met last week to discuss the problem of online abuse.
At the meeting, Mings, Aston Villa’s central defender, revealed how he is regularly called “n*****” on social media and was bombarded with abuse online after an on-field incident was criticised by commentator, Gary Neville.
Research shows that players who stand against the online trolls attract even more abuse so Dowden is grateful to the group for sharing their experiences and he wants them to stay involved as civil servants finalise the new law, which will be in force later this year.
Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings (L) is regularly the victim of racist abuse by online trolls
The statement of intent from government comes in the days after more racist online messages have been directed at Marcus Rashford, his Manchester United team mates, Axel Tuanzebe and Anthony Martial, as well as Chelsea’s Reece James and West Brom’s Jermaine Sawyers.
Government sources agree with the football authorities, clubs and the antiracism organisation, Kick It Out, that there is nothing to stop social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter from acting now before the new rules become law.
A key issue is the anonymity of the many abusive users, including some of those who targeted players this week.
A source with a detailed knowledge of the draft legislation told Sportsmail that it will force tech firms to comply with a police request for information so officers can act quickly against offenders.
Monkey emojis were posted on a picture the Axel Tuanzebe posted several weeks ago
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is writing to players praising them for standing up to racists
The police can unmask anonymous abusers now, but it can be time consuming and there is a better chance the perpetrator will be caught if tech companies kept a record of who the users are.
‘The account should link to a real person, then when required they can produce that information with sufficient speed for enforcement action,’ said Sanjay Bhandari, the chief executive of Kick It Out.
‘Facebook is the fifth largest corporation on the planet,’ he added. ‘They have the technology and resources, it’s whether they have the desire to do it and do it quickly. That is why it requires legislation.
Marcus Rashford has responded to the vile racial abuse he received on social media
The England international was targeted on Instagram after Man United’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal
Kick It Out says the recent increase in abuse is linked to lockdown.
‘Lockdown has led to an increase in abuse, we said it would and it has,’ added Bhandari.
‘It’s boredom. They are at home with nothing else to do. They are watching the game, egged on by anonymity and that is what we have seen. We knew it would happen.’
A study undertaken in partnership with the Professional Footballers’ Association, during a six-week period in the nation’s first lock down in June, tracked the treatment of 44 high-profile players on social media and recorded 3000 abusive messages – more than half of them were racist.
Kick It Out chief Sanjay Bhandariis demanding action from social media companies
Of particular concern was the use of emojis, like those used to attack Tuanzebe and James.
Almost three in ten abusive posts contained emojis in an attempt to dodge tracking software.
Twitter’s algorithms in particular, were not effective at intercepting racially abusive posts that were sent using emojis, the report concluded.
Research by Kick It Out and the PFA found 3,000 abusive messages against 44 footballers
The government’s new law will require social media companies to:
- use technology to track abusive content more effectively, including emojis, so that a greater proportion of it will require can be identified immediately and removed instantly
- be able to verify a user’s identity from their account so action can be taken against them more quickly if they have broken the rules or the law
- have systems in place to respond quickly to complaints about abusive content.
If tech firms do not comply and demonstrate their duty of care towards their users then the fines will follow from the regulator. A draft bill should be finished before the summer break.
Social media companies claim that the issue of identification poses problems from a privacy point of view, there are different requirements in different parts of the world and it may exclude disadvantaged groups from using the platforms.
But Bhandari insists the need is not anonymity in the public-facing section of the platforms, rather the ability to identify people in the back end.
Watford forward Troy Deeney shared his experiences of racism with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and has used his high profile to speak out against online racist abuse
‘That’s the bit that needs to be improved,’ he added. ‘People feel there is no sanction for their behaviour.’
And he says inactive accounts should be saved for a period of time to prevent hit and run abuse.
Instagram insists it does not tolerate racism and has removed comments and accounts as a result of the abuse sent to Martial, Tuanzebe, James and Rashford.
It also points out the in recent years it has tripled the size of its security team to 35,000, and built artificial intelligence technology to proactively find and remove offensive content.
“There is no place for racism on Instagram and we have taken action to remove accounts and comments following the abuse received by players this past week,’ said a spokesman for Facebook.
‘We know there is more to do and we will continue to work closely with clubs, players and football authorities to investigate instances of discrimination and collectively tackle this issue.
This includes our work with Kick it Out on an anti-discrimination initiative, Take a Stand.”